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Caps GM McPhee faces very critical week

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Caps GM McPhee faces very critical week

Posted on 27 March 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee is arguably facing his most critical week in his 16 year tenure.

His Caps sit at 15-17-1, 11th place in the Eastern Conference and 23rd overall in the NHL, with the trade deadline just one week away on April 3rd at 3pm.

It is waters they have not chartered since 2006-07 and a team that won four straight Southeast Division titles from 2008 to 2011 with 94, 108, 121, and 107 points, respectively, and had 92 points and finished eighth in the East last season, is currently moving towards a location often called “No Man’s Land.”

No Man’s Land is a spot in the NHL where you aren’t good enough to contend for the Stanley Cup, likely won’t make the playoffs, but also aren’t bad enough to land one of the top three spots in the draft. It is a position where it is very difficult to get better quickly, just ask the Calgary Flames or the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have been the President and Vice President of No Man’s Land in the NHL the last several years. Those teams, who have rabid and demanding fan bases, have recently routinely gone with the mind set that they are only a player or two away from the playoffs or contending in them. Both have been reluctant to take a critical step back in order to possibly move two or three steps forward (that might finally be changing in Calgary this spring, but is it too late?).

The Capitals were headed to No Man’s Land once before, in the days of Jaromir Jagr, but owner Ted Leonsis and McPhee went the “blow it up” route and started over. For the most part, especially from a business standpoint, they had success and it landed them Alexander Oveckhin, who is worth the price of admission on most nights, all by himself. It is important to note that hockey is first and foremost a business to many owners. So the bottom line is vital. Thus the push to just get into the playoffs can often be the difference between being in the red or black. The bottom line can drive an approach that constantly looks at the short term solution instead of the bigger picture.

This is a danger I see for the Caps right now. They are a team that has an incredible home sellout streak of 169 games and the marketable product in Ovechkin. But everyone knows in the Baltimore/DC area that winning is your most marketable item. This region demands a winner and when a club can’t consistently do that, the fan base erodes exponentially (see the Baltimore Orioles for 14 years). So owner Ted Leonsis surely is leery of what the impacts of a losing season or missing the playoffs would do to his club that generates full building after full building these days. So it can be a risk to have a losing season.

Clearly the Caps would love to make a run and reach the postseason this year but after last night’s loss to New York Islanders, they are seven points out of first place in the Southeast Division and four points behind the Rangers for eighth place overall in the Eastern Conference. With no Western Conference matchups, it is very difficult to make up ground. To reach the post season, the Capitals will likely need to go 11-4 or something along those lines. Is that really doable with this team, one that is finally healthy and still couldn’t beat John Tavares and company, at home, in a very important game?

That is a question that McPhee needs to ask himself because the way I see it right now he has three options over the next week:

1. Stand pat and do nothing

2. Become a buyer and try to make the post season

3. Sell off some assets ensuring a post season miss but put yourself in position to snag one of the elite players in what appears to be a draft with some impact players at the top.

In option one it will be difficult to make the postseason and the Caps likely end up 9th or 10th in the East. They would have low odds to win the new draft lottery to pick first overall and probably would draft around the 10th to 14th spot in New Jersey in June. In addition, unless they sign Mike Ribeiro, they likely lose him to unrestricted free agency after the season.

In the second choice, McPhee would really need to add an impact player to get this team to go 11-4 down the stretch. It would have to be a top line winger and to do that they have to give something up, likely their first round pick this year or perhaps one of their recent first round picks (Evgeny Kuznetsov, Filip Forsberg, or Tom Wilson). It is a mortgage the future type of move that might get them in the postseason but likely doesn’t put them in a real position to contend for the Stanley Cup given what the Pittsburgh Penguins roster looks like now after acquiring Brenden Morrow and Doug Murray. Making the playoffs would help the bottom line but would the price be too great? Then they’d still have the issue of trying to sign Ribeiro along with the asset they acquired at the deadline. The Caps currently have only $15M of salary cap space for 2013-14 with just 15 players under contract. Two top six forwards would eat up much of that and McPhee still has to sign defensemen Karl Alzner who is a restricted free agent, as well as some other players. Sure the competitor in me would like to give it a shot but depending on what you have to give up this season for a top six forward asset, doesn’t appear to make a lot of sense.

Therefore, option three seems to be the smart move. Signing Ribeiro is going to be awfully tough to do and with number 9 at 33 years old and wanting a five year deal, it just doesn’t seem like a wise option on his terms. Remember Michal Nylander? That signing in 2007 arguably cost McPhee the salary cap space he needed in 2009 to shore up a Washington defense that was likely the biggest thing holding them back from beating the Penguins in 2009 and going on to win the Stanley Cup. So why hamstring yourself with a big contract to an aging player and risk that scenario all over again when you are planning on contending again?

But if you can get a number one draft pick or more this year for Ribeiro, then you should deal him. Sure you will definitely miss the playoffs but you also now have two first round picks and could package them to possibly move up to number one, two, or three and get one of Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon, or Jonathan Drouin. Jones, according to my sources, is the best player in the draft and NHL ready now. He very likely will be a number one defensemen on a team in the NHL in a couple of years. He’s a team changer. Snag him and you suddenly have options to possibly move some of your other defensemen, like Mike Green, who you are paying $6M a season now.

In addition to Ribeiro or Green, there are other guys on this roster that teams might be interested in such as Marcus Johansson or Joel Ward or one of the three goalies (Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth, or Philip Grubauer) at the trade deadline.

What McPhee and his staff need to do is work to the Baltimore Ravens model of “Right Player, Right Price.” You have to know the value you place on every player on your team and in the league and make moves accordingly. Washington’s pro scouts will really need to be doing their jobs well and feeding the GM the info he requires to make some hard decisions. If you do it right you don’t overpay for your own guys and can end up with better players at or below that price (see the Ravens getting Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty, and Marcus Spears for the same overall amount the Cleveland Browns paid for Paul Kruger).

McPhee has made some very smart decisions on players before, such as Semyon Varlamov, who he traded for a 1st and 2nd round pick. The 1st rounder is now Forsberg while the Capitals haven’t taken any hit at all in the goaltending department. Sergei Fedorov for Theo Ruth was another blue ribbon deal by the GM that made the Caps a legit Stanley Cup contender for two straight springs. But he’s also had some not so good decisions (re-signing an aging Tom Poti for two years, the four year deal for Jeff Schultz, and the two years given to an aging Roman Hamrlik). Those contracts have impacted Washington’s salary cap while not yielding quality results on the ice.

With Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and John Carlson having long term deals clearly they are the guys for McPhee to build around going forward. Everyone else should be up grabs. It is Asset Management 101 at this point for Washington. They need to do what they can to transform a team that was one of the best in the league from 2008 to 2010, but has steadily declined, back into a Cup contender.

Sure its a risk from a marketing standpoint, but the fans in this area recognize when you are going in the right direction and will have the patience to endure a reshaping of the roster, especially if they believe it will eventually lead to Washington’s first Stanley Cup. So it’s a low risk play and if the moves are done right and there is a championship in the next few years or so, then you have people locked into your team long term (see the Philadelphia Flyers, who still sell out despite not winning a Cup since 1975).

So this is a huge week for McPhee and one he has three roads he can possibly take. They aren’t easy decisions and only he and his staff really know what options are going to be available to him in return for his current assets.

The path he ultimately chooses will likely make or break his and the Capitals future.

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Caps Have The Right Coach in Adam Oates

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Caps Have The Right Coach in Adam Oates

Posted on 06 March 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Wow, now that was an entertaining hockey game.

The Washington Capitals spotted the Boston Bruins three first period goals then roared back with two in the middle frame, the tying tally with 6:05 to go in regulation, before winning the game, 4-3, with Eric Fehr’s top shelf wrister just 37 seconds into overtime. It was a contest that saw exciting plays and odd man rushes at both sides of the rink. There also was lots of physical play and some huge saves at both ends. No doubt anyone who paid to watch it received their money’s worth.

In addition, it was a win the Caps needed to keep their Southeast Division title hopes alive and they have won seven of their last 10 games to improve their record to 9-11-1 (19 points). It also was their most impressive victory of the season because it came against the team that likely is the best and most complete club in the Eastern Conference. Boston is 14-3-3. They have four good lines, three solid defensive pairs, and a good goalie (Tuukka Rask). Just two springs ago they won the Stanley Cup and are serious contenders once again in 2013.

So to give a quality team like the Bruins a three spot in the opening frame and come back and win says a lot about the Caps and their progress since their 2-8-1 start. This club, weak in talent in some key areas, is starting to play some good and inspired hockey.

In my book, the credit for that goes to Coach Adam Oates.

In Tuesday night’s victory, Washington actually came out and played a decent first period despite the early hole on the scoreboard. They were working hard and generating chances with a ferocious forecheck. But their special teams let them down in the first 20 minutes yielding a shorthanded goal on a penalty shot and a power play marker. Many teams might have packed it in and some coaches might have yelled at their club and likely ended any chances of a comeback.

But Oates didn’t do that. The Caps I talked to after the game, Fehr (1G, 2A), Steve Oleksy (1A), and Braden Holtby (30 saves), all to a man said it was the coach’s message between periods that allowed the Capitals to stay focused on the task at hand.

The Hall of Famer told the team that they did a lot of good things in the first period and to stick to their system. Oates’ troops did exactly that and Washington was able to chip away at the Bruins lead.

Much has been made of the Caps coaching system over the last 18 months. The popular and gregarious Bruce Boudreau did a lot of super things for the Caps but was let go in November of 2011. Bruce is a very good coach, as evidenced by what his Anaheim Ducks are doing so far this season, but his time had run its course in Washington. In came Dale Hunter and while he earned the players respect and nearly produced a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, the organization didn’t like his defensive system. So all last spring the talk around the team was that owner Ted Leonsis and GM George McPhee needed to hire a hybrid of the two coaches. One who had an aggressive system like Boudreau but also one who had a calm demeanor and would command respect, like Hunter.

Guess what? Oates is exactly a combination of the good of both Boudreau and Hunter. He REALLY knows hockey from a technical and tactical standpoint. But he also knows people and players too. He is calm and doesn’t get too high or low. When Washington was struggling early on he preached patience and adherence to the system. He cautioned it would take time but he was not afraid to point out individual or team shortcomings. He’s a straight shooter.

So when Oates came in to talk to the media after a thrilling victory, it was no surprise that he conducted his press conference in the same fashion as he did after a loss or during the early season struggles. He was honest, forthcoming, and it is clear he wasn’t too high about things even though his team is on a roll right now. He talked about continuing to work hard and about going over some of the things they were doing wrong that led to too many chances for Boston, which fortunately did not come back to haunt them on this night. He talked about players keeping their emotions in check. He talked about the thought process in deciding to keep Holtby in the game after allowing three early goals. Basically he said all of the things you’d expect from a good coach.

And that is what the Capitals have right now, a good hockey coach, who will only get better.

Management definitely needs to make some player moves to get this team back to the elite level, and making trades during a winning run certainly puts an organization in a stronger position to do that. So McPhee and Leonsis have that going for them, which is nice.

But one thing they don’t have to worry about is looking for a head coach again. The way this club works and reacts to their bench boss certainly justifies one thing for me:

They got the coaching decision absolutely right in choosing Adam Oates.

Notes: Washington lost the face off battle 36-32, primarily because Mike Ribeiro went 1-9 from the dot. However, the Caps second goal, scored by Tomas Kundratek, came directly off of a Nicklas Backstrom (3 assists) win from the dot…Alex Ovechkin had a wild night with an assist, two penalties, 13 attempted shots, three takeaways, three hits, and two blocked shots in 23:19 of ice time. He also crashed into the Bruins goal three times. He was up and down the ice on both offense and defense and it was clear he was on a mission to get a Caps victory…Defensemen Roman Hamrlik was put on waivers on Tuesday…Mike Green (groin) and Troy Brouwer (illness) both missed the game…Oleksy played just over 10 minutes in his NHL debut and had an assist and was +2. He was paired with Tom Poti on defense.

 PROGRAMMING NOTE: I will be on WNST 1570 AM at 7:45 am on Wednesday morning talking Caps hockey with Drew Forrester. Listen Live via WNST.NET

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Caps Get Much Needed Blowout Victory

Posted on 09 February 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The Florida Panthers should reconsider playing hockey at the Verizon Center going forward.

After getting absolultely smoked by the Washington Capitals, 5-0 on Saturday night, they are now 0-4 and have been outscored 16-2 by the Caps in those games.

It was a victory that this Caps club desperately needed. They played with energy, determination, and heart. They got super goaltending from Braden Holtby and they only allowed two power plays to the Cats.

Coach Adam Oates shook up the lineup at forward sitting underachieving Marcus Johansson and putting Mathieu Perreault on a unit with Joel Ward and Eric Fehr. Boy did that move pay dividends as the 42-85-16 unit was all over Florida with a ferocious forecheck and pressure that led to two goals for that line. Ward now has five goals on the season and is tied with Troy Brouwer for the team lead.

Brouwer also had a big night with two tallies, including one going in off of his rear. But good things happen when you go to the net, something this Washington club needs to do more of if they want to climb their way up the standings.

On the back end, the defense received a boost from John Erskine’s return to the lineup after serving a three game suspension. The loss of #4 forced Oates to put in either Tom Poti or Roman Hamrlik and at this stage, neither one of those defensemen looks like they are NHL calibre anymore. Erskine was solid in 17 minutes and change and he had a spirited first period fight with Florida tough guy, George Parros. Perhaps that bout gave Washington a bit of a spark?

Whatever the case, the whole team looked good and Alexander Ovechkin finally notched an even strength goal. The Gr8 was physical and engaged and looks like he is sick and tired of losing because his intensity has gone way up over the last two games.

So the Caps move to 3-8-1 after this whitewashing of a Florida team that looked totally lost. The Caps get them again in Sunrise on Tuesday in another must win for Washington.

It is only one victory, albeit an impressive one, but the Capitals have dug themselves quite a hole and they will need to play like this each and every night for a sustained period to get back into the playoff race. It certainly won’t hurt if the opponents continue to play poorly like the Panthers did in this one.

Notes: Holtby’s great pass on a bad Florida change set up Brouwer’s 2nd tally, a power play goal…Washington won the faceoff battle, 25-24….every Caps player had at least 10 minutes of ice time with Mike Green logging the most at 24:11. Oates had to be pleased that his team stayed out of the box and he could roll all four lines.

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Ovechkin

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Predicting the Caps Season Is As Clear As Mud Right Now

Posted on 18 January 2013 by Ed Frankovic

 

The Washington Capitals start their short but jam packed 48 game season in Tampa Bay tomorrow night when they take on the Lightning (7 pm CSN).

Since the magical run in the spring of 2008, I’ve felt like I’ve had a pretty good read on this team and could accurately say before the season started that the Caps were definitely a playoff team each of the last four campaigns.

Last year’s club struggled through a coaching change and key injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green before squeaking into the dance and then coming a game away from a date with the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Championship.

This season, I have no idea how this team, with a new coach and system, will respond in a season where taking a game or two off is just not an option.

Hockey starts in net and Washington will go with youngsters Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth. Personally, I am pretty confident in that duo right now, especially given the way those two compete. Holtby’s ability to play the puck certainly is an advantage I expect coach Adam Oates to put to use frequently.

On defense, Dennis Wideman departed in free agency (Calgary) but with a healthy Mike Green and an emerging John Carlson, they didn’t need him at the dollars he was looking for and received. With Karl Azner in the mix as the Caps most solid defensive defensemen to go with the aging, but savvy Roman Hamrlik, Washington has a decent top four. After that it is a crap shoot with Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, Jack Hillen, and a 35 year old Tom Poti, who miraculously is back after missing two years due to groin and hip injuries. Dmitry Orlov would probably be my number five d-man on this club, but he is hurt right now. So this defensive crew could be really good or teams could expose the third pair, if it doesn’t step up. Any two week or more injury to either Green, Carlson, or Alzner could be devasting.

Up front, the Capitals have three legitimate top six forwards in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Ribeiro. Luckily two of those three are centers, something the Caps haven’t been able to say since 2009. The question though, is who is going to be the wingers to fill out the top two lines? Troy Brouwer, because of his net presence is clearly the best answer on the roster. Brooks Laich would be your next best bet but he is out injured and may not play for the first two weeks. General Manager George McPhee is taking a flyer on forward Wojtek Wolski, who was signed off of the scrap heap this past summer. Wolski is 6-3 and 210 and he will need to play “big” if he wants to stick around in the top six.

Third year man Marcus Johansson is on the top line right now with the Gr8 and Backstrom. MJ90 has a lot of speed but he puts no physical fear into opposing defenders and he was often rubbed off of the puck easily in the corner in his freshmen and sophomore campaigns. Playing the third year Swede on the top line is asking a lot of the youngster.

I really like the third line of Jason Chimera-Jay Beagle-Joel Ward, especially now that we know Ward is not dealing with the hernia injury he had in 2011-12. The fourth line features heart and soul hard worker Matt Hendricks and likely a rotation of two of the following three players: re-signed Eric Fehr, Mathieu Perreault, and Joey Crabb.

Clearly this team will need above average to excellent seasons from Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green if it is going to win the Southeast Division. None of them had even average seasons last year, although Green and Backstrom had injury excuses. So to predict this team is a lock for the postseason is no sure bet.

Many of the so-called experts are already giving the Stanley Cup to the New York Rangers since they added forward Rick Nash while giving up pretty much nothing. We all witnessed how smart the experts were in the NFL last week when Ray Lewis and company went in and won in Denver when practically every talking head out there had a “Brady vs. Manning” AFC Championship matchup set in stone. Yes, the Rangers look good on paper, but you have to play the games.

The bottom line is the Caps could be really good or they could fall flat on their faces. McPhee has been consistent this week in saying “I like our team.”

Well the games start tomorrow, then come rapidly at a fast and furious pace, so Caps fans are about to find out if their GM is on the mark.

 

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Fast Start, Special Teams Propel Caps into Game 7

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Fast Start, Special Teams Propel Caps into Game 7

Posted on 10 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After losing game five in traumatic fashion and facing post season elimination, the Washington Capitals needed a fast start in game six on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center to stay alive in their best of seven series with the New York Rangers.

Boy did they get just what the doctor ordered.

All series I’ve been talking about the Capitals needing to use their speed to take advantage of a slooowww New York Rangers defense and right out of the gate the Caps did just that. Jason Chimera went flying by Anton Stralman and the Rangers d-man had to haul him down. Out trotted the Caps power play but instead of Alexander Ovechkin at the point, like he typically is, Coach Dale Hunter had Mike Green and Dennis Wideman manning the blue line with the Gr8 down low with Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. Talk about making the right move at the right time, Ovechkin alertly worked himself into the slot and found himself wide open. Super Swede #19 fed him beautifully and the Gr8 one timed it top right corner past Henrik Lundqvist only 88 seconds into the contest. Verizon Center erupted and Hunter said afterwards that every team plays better with a lead. He also talked about the changed power play configuration, which this team actually practiced before the playoffs began and have used a couple of times this post season, but not much, if at all, in this series.

“It’s just one of those changes we make. We thought that Ovi, with his big shot, could get a shot off. On the play, one of their players fell and really left an opening and a shot from there by Ovi doesn’t miss very often,” said Hunter.

The goal was doubly important because it came on the power play and when you score first and carry the special teams battle, you normally win the hockey game. On this night Washington would go 1 for 3 with the man advantage while killing off all five Blueshirts power plays (10 minutes worth).

Another big key to victory was the play of the Backstrom-Chimera-Alex Semin line. That unit gave the Rangers fits all evening and it was the strong play on the boards of #’s 19 and 28 that allowed the Capitals to get their first two goal lead since game two. Backstrom started it behind the net and then Semin made a strong move off of the wall shedding his Ranger defender. #28 found an open John Carlson on the far boards, who blasted one towards the net. Backstrom had come out to position himself in the prime scoring position and the puck hit him and bounced right to Chimera, who deposited it in the empty cage.

The goal, just a second before the 11 minute mark, was crucial. After that Jeff Halpern, who replaced an injured Jay Beagle in the lineup, took a four minute high sticking penalty and Caps fans everywhere had to be thinking, following the Joel Ward infraction that cost Washington game five, “here we go again.” But the Capitals penalty killing, which started with great goaltending from Braden Holtby (30 saves), was superb and New York lost momentum when the four minutes were up.

In the final frame, the Caps played sound defensively. They counterattacked and had opportunities to score with Ovechkin having two good chances and setting up Johansson for another, but King Henrik (21 saves) stood tall. New York had another late surge and scored with the goalie pulled after a Caps lost face-off with 50 seconds remaining. The Rangers don’t quit, that is for sure, and that late game play is something Washington must improve on if they want to advance. Following that goal, though, the Capitals did win a few draws and Holtby didn’t have to make any big stops until the final horn sounded.

So it all comes down to a pivotal game seven on Saturday night at 730pm. The #1 seeded Rangers playing on home ice have to be the favorites. However, as I said before game seven in Boston, there can be an advantage to being the road team. The home team has distractions with ticket requests and extra pressure being the favored club while the visitors just show up and play a hockey game. It is a nice position for Washington to be in, but don’t get me wrong, there is pressure on this team to win this series as many players jobs are likely riding on it.

Historically, the Caps have stunk in game sevens (3-7), however, most of those (8 of the 10) have been on home ice. They won the last one in Boston on the road, but can they do it again and win on Broadway to finally make it to the Eastern Conference Finals?

We shall see, but it is vitally important that the core of this team, which is Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, Semin, and Brooks Laich, find a way to break through in their fifth straight post-season.

Notes: Karl Alzner and Carlson did a great job against Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, and either Carl Hagelin or Ryan Callahan on their defensive shifts. Alzner told me playing against those guys is “a lot of fun.” A battle on the boards ensues on every shift, it seems, and Alzner says that those guys are so skilled that you have to be sure you move the puck quickly or they can take it back fast…Matt Hendricks said that the Rangers like to come out of the cycle and get the puck into the slot. The Caps cut those attempts off most of the evening…Washington won the face-off battle 38-27 with Backstrom going 10-5…Richards, Callahan, and Gaborik all played over 22 minutes each…the Caps ice time distribution was much more balanced with Alzner leading the way with 23:13 and Carlson logging 22:00.

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Mentally Tough Caps Even Up Series

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Mentally Tough Caps Even Up Series

Posted on 05 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

For all of the talk out of the Big Apple about the mental toughness of the Rangers in their three overtime victory early Thursday morning, the Washington Capitals sure answered back on Saturday with a gritty 3-2 victory at the Verizon Center on Mike Green’s late power play goal. It was a huge marker for #52 and the Caps, who now have tied this series up at two games apiece as it moves back to Manhattan for game five on Monday.

If you were projecting the future based on Caps team history, this was a contest that Washington probably would have lost following a heart breaking defeat in game three. But we just might be seeing a different Capitals club that is doing their best to rewrite that book with a brand new chapter. 

Today’s victory was a combination of the Young Guns stepping up their respective games combined with more solid play from some of the key guys who helped win two straight Calder Cups in Hershey plus some true blue collar grit from several grinders. Simply put, there were many players who contributed their part to the win.

Let’s go down the list starting with the Young Guns:

Alexander Ovechkin scored in the first period to give the Caps an important 1-0 lead off of a Rangers turnover. Why was that goal so key? Well in 11 playoff games this spring that the Caps have played, the first goal has won 10 of them (including today).

Nicklas Backstrom was probably the best forward on the ice today. #19 was a BEAST. His play on the second goal was pure power and skill as he showed his amazing strength on his skates by knocking Artem Anisimov to the ice like he was a flea and then the Young Swede skated into prime scoring position, took a sweet pass from Jason Chimera, and beat Henrik Lundqvist top shelf.

Green is a player that I felt would be the difference maker in this series in my round two preview. Today #52 made it happen for the Capitals. Game Over Greenie was +1 in 22:08 of ice and his rocket of a shot past King Henrik with 5:48 remaining was just what he and the team needed.

Alexander Semin was pointless but he came close to making it 3-1 in the middle frame. #28 was inches away from making a big play to break this game open or give the Caps the lead a few times but just couldn’t get a bounce. Perhaps in game five he will be rewarded for what was a good 17:02 from him on Saturday?

Now to the Hershey crew:

Karl Alzner and John Carlson were as solid as rocks on the back end. Alzner is the team’s shut down d-man and Carlson was all over the ice again winning lose puck battles and being a physical force. #74 is playing the best hockey of his young career and it was his strong play on the offensive blue line that kept the puck in the zone and as a result Carl Hagelin took his critical slashing penalty. #62 broke Carlson’s stick and the zebras had to call it, otherwise Marian Gaborik has a breakaway (the Rangers were upset that an Ovechkin slash on Brian Boyle minutes earlier wasn’t whistled but given that it happened in a non-threatening area of the ice, they let it go. Besides, the Rangers received two power plays in OT on Wednesday to none for the Caps so they can whine all they want, but they’ve had their share of the calls in this series.)

Jay Beagle was super once again in his own zone and even though he was 5-13 on face-offs, some of those key wins were at the end of the game. #83 is one of the best stories of the Caps season.

Braden Holtby continues to be unflappable in net and he made some big stops (18 saves overall). The two tallies against him were the result of poor coverage and bad breaks. On the first goal the puck bounces off of Brooks Laich’s skates right to Anisimov, who received a layup. The second tally started with bad officiating from the linesmen. The back linesman, who was directly in #70′s sight line, was calling icing but when the puck went over Dennis Wideman’s head the near linesman, for some crazy reason, waved it off. Holtby didn’t hear or see that and had his arm up thinking one of the Caps would touch up the puck. Instead Anisimov beat Wideman to the biscuit and #6 and Jeff Schultz both made the cardinal sin of vacating the front of the cage. That allowed Gaborik to get a lay up. Poor communication there first by the linesmen, second between Holtby and his d-pair, and more importantly, it was terrible non-talk by #6 and #55 to not decide who was staying out front. Holtby told me after the game had it not been icing he would have definitely played the puck. Oh well, there is one of those zebra breaks that went New York’s way. Overall, the missed calls have pretty much evened out through four games.

As for the grinders, the list of hard workers that got it done is long.

Let’s start with Matt Hendricks who is doing ALL of the intangibles. #26 blocks shots, wins puck battles and just sacrificies like no tomorrow for his team. I can’t say enough good things about his determination and effort.

Laich, Troy Brouwer, Roman Hamrlik, Joel Ward, Chimera, Mike Knuble, and Keith Aucoin all did the little things necessary to win a tight hockey game. These guys all want to win badly.

So at the end of the day, Coach Dale Hunter has to feel good about his club. As he’s said and I’ve blogged about time and time again, special teams is such a huge factor in the playoffs. Today the Capitals started and finished strong with their power play (1 for 2) while they received two key penalty kills in the middle frame (2 for 2 overall). The PK’s were especially important because the Rangers dominated the first 10 minutes of that period but Alzner, Carlson, and Beagle all confirmed to me afterwards that Washington’s mid game turnaround was sparked by those penalty kills. If the Rangers go up 2-1 there, the series may have been squarely in the corner of New York, but they didn’t get that key go ahead goal and Washington went on to get a huge victory.

It was a win that showed their mental toughness and came after a rough defeat. Holtby and the Caps are now 5-0 after a loss in these playoffs.

They now head to New York on Monday to try and write a new chapter in Capitals history, one that could have a positive ending, for the first time in a very long time.

Stay tuned.

Notes: The Caps outshot the Rangers 26-20 but attempted shots were 52-40 in favor of the Blueshirts…Green’s goal came with he and Wideman on the points on the PP and Ovechkin down low, something I’ve wanted to see more of. On the replay of the goal you see the Gr8 with a free lane to the net and I can’t help but think that Lundqvist’s peripheral vision catches that and prevents #30 from totally squaring up on Green’s shot…Schultz blocked nine shots but was -2 and Marcus Johansson was -1 with a couple of giveaways. Both need to be better, especialy MJ90 who played on the top line with Ovechkin and Laich…I was thrilled to see the 8-19-90 line broken up before puck drop today. It lacked net presence on Wednesday and in the playoffs you need someone to crash the cage on each shift. Hunter’s four lines on Saturday all had that element with the Knuble-Aucion-Ward line doing that the best…for more of my take on the game, check out a post game video I did over at On Frozen Blog.

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Caps Coming Together As A Team At Right Time

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Caps Coming Together As A Team At Right Time

Posted on 14 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After Thursday’s tough 1-0 overtime loss to the Bruins, something happened, in defeat, with the Washington Capitals that spoke volumes to me. The Caps, with captain Alexander Ovechkin as one of the leaders, came out and mobbed rookie goalie Braden Holtby almost as if the team had won the game instead of leaving #70 to skate off by himself while the rest of the players filed off of the bench and down the tunnel, like typically happens more often than not around the league in overtime playoff losses.

What did that tell me? That this hockey club, that has had an extremely tumultuous season, is coming together as a team, at the right time. Today, they backed that feeling up for me with a gritty, 2-1, win in Boston in double overtime to tie this best of seven series up at one game apiece.

Holtby (43 saves) was excellent in goal again and so far he appears to be the catalyst for the Caps recent bonding. The rookie goalie is making timely saves so the team has confidence in him and as a result they are giving the defending Stanley Cup Champions fits so far. After Boston carried most of game one, the Capitals came out and more than held their own in this contest. Ovechkin (1 assist) had a much stronger effort and he relied more on his power than finesse, in this tilt. In fact, his strong play on the wall led to Troy Brouwer’s goalmouth tally that gave the Caps a 1-0 lead late in period two. It was a sandpaper type of goal and one Washington needed to prove they could find a way to get a puck past Tim Thomas (37 saves), who has been playing phenomenal, as well.

Even after Benouit Pouliot scored with just under eight minutes left in regulation to tie the game up, on a play where he bowled over Holtby after tipping the puck by him, the young goalie and his club didn’t appear panicked. Washington stuck to Coach Dale Hunter’s game plan of being responsible in their own zone and it worked.

Playoff games are often won or lost on special teams or on faceoffs. With both teams still failing to score on the power play in this series, it was an offensive zone draw that proved decisive for the Caps. Patrice Bergeron actually won it, but Nicklas Backstrom managed to push the puck below the goal line where Marcus Johansson corraled it. With three Boston defenders focused on MJ90, the young swede slid the puck to a wide open #19 in the slot, who fired one past Thomas for the game winner.

The Caps bench erupted and instead of going down 2-0, Washington is more than in this series.

The Bruins are still the favorites right now. After all, they have a ton of experience from last season to fall back on. They are a deep team with an excellent goalie. They play a physical game. They are supposed to win.

But the Capitals are healthy at the right time at forward and on defense, and the young Holtby is seizing a huge opportunity in goal to provide a backbone for this team. He is making key saves and also helping his defense out with his superior stick handling skills.

The kid is playing well but the pundits are still backing the defending champs.

But with those expectations comes more pressure for Boston. The Caps have internal pressure to win, but the media has mostly written them off.

It seems the lack of belief in them, along with some timely health, and the emergence of Holtby in net has allowed this Capitals club to come together as a team at the right time.

The key will be keeping it up by sticking together, listening to their coaches, and putting the team first. That is how you win playoff games and a series.

Notes: Karl Alzner and John Carlson were outstanding on defense today and that is four really good games in a row for #74, who is peaking at the right time…Johansson was the game’s first star while Alzner got the second. #27 is super smart on the ice…the Caps won the faceoff battle 34-30 with Jay Beagle going 11-6. #83 has been dominant on draws in this series…Mike Green was +2 and he led all Capitals in ice time with 33:28. He and Roman Hamrlik are playing very well together…Dennis Wideman and Jeff Schultz were once again on the ice for the Boston goal and have been the weakest defensive pair for the Caps. Wideman’s ice time was just over 20 minutes, where it likely should be with the other two D-pairs playing so well.

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Will the Caps Best Hockey Come in the Post Season?

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Will the Caps Best Hockey Come in the Post Season?

Posted on 11 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Just two days before they open their playoff series in Boston against the Bruins on Thursday night (7:30 pm on Comcast Sportsnet) the Washington Capitals hit the ice at Kettler IcePlex and had a high intensity and spirited practice. The Caps went 5-2 down the stretch, and after what appeared to be a disastrous loss to Buffalo on March 27th, they shook it off and played some good hockey. In my book, this Capitals team, which missed Mike Green for most of the season and Nicklas Backstrom for 40 games, still has yet to play its’ best hockey. In years past that has not been the case, so I spoke with some of the players to get their take on that premise.

“We’ve been better in the past couple of weeks, I think we’ve been playing better hockey, but we’ve got more to offer. Our best player, [Alexander Ovechkin], he’s been playing better and he’s gonna get better and with the playoffs coming I think everybody is going to put everything on the line. It’s different for us this year as a seventh seed instead of the first seed, so I think it’s going to be different. We’re ready, we’re hungry for the playoffs, I think we’ll be ready to go,” said center Mathieu Perreault, who scored 16 goals in 2011-12.

“I think everybody knows it’s a long and season and it’s tough to ask any team to keep at that level where you play your best or have your best, I would say, and we haven’t. Lately, especially at the end of the season, I think we play solid games. I think we played pretty good against some tough teams and we’ve proven we can play against anybody. But, that’s past, that’s over. I think this is a new season that is going to start with the playoffs, it’s totally different hockey. Now we have to bring our best,” added defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who I thought played his finest game of the year in the season finale in New York.

It is one thing to admit you haven’t played your best hockey and another thing to then go out and do it. Both former coach Bruce Boudreau and new coach Dale Hunter have talked about playing simple. This Caps team is highly talented and skilled, especially at wing, but the club has a tendency to try and make the perfect play. So can these guys put those past patterns aside and simplify their game?

“Lately we try to keep it simple, our D is just up the wall to the winger, chip it in and get on the forecheck. I think we are a better team when we do that and we work down low. We are a good team cycling the puck to the net so we are going to have to do that,” added Perreault on a reason why the team has played better in the last five games.

“What do we have to do? We talked about that the whole season. Just play our system, stick with what we have to do. Make the first quick pass on the tape and get the puck quickly and out of our zone and cycle the team and play in their zone. Try to stay out of the box. They have a pretty good power play. Be mentally ready and prepared for a big challenge. They won last year and everybody knows they’re a championship team. They have a pretty good solid hard working team and we have to bring everything we’ve got,” said Hamrlik, echoing the importance of the easy pass and cycle game.

Certainly special teams is going to be a huge factor, especially the power play in this series (btw, if you haven’t read this post by Caps beat writer Mike Vogel, then make sure you check it out). The unit has been very bad at home and one of the major reasons is the overpassing of the puck. On Tuesday the team practiced it and there was an emphasis on shots from the point with traffic in front of the opposing goalie. But we’ve seen and heard that before only to see that strategy abandoned come game time. Last Saturday against the Rangers, the power play was mostly atrocious and yielded several shorthanded chances. But when John Carlson was on the ice, things were different and Washington scored. #74 stuck to the formula the coaches have been selling so it is paramount that Green, Oveckhin, Dennis Wideman, and others buy in. A playoff series can be won alone on special teams, as the Vogel story points out.

“Yes, we are trying to be cute sometimes with the skill that we have, especially on the point and the top of the power play we should use [the shot] more if we see an open lane and there is a little bit of traffic. That is how most of the goals are going in, they’re through traffic or screens or they’re banging them in around the goal line. I think that we’ve been talking about that a little bit more,” added Carlson, who certainly gets it and should see more man advantage time on the point, in my book.

Another big factor for the Caps to play their best begins in net with goalie Braden Holtby. Not only does #70 need to stop the puck, but against a physical team like Boston he has to help his defense out with his superior puck handling skills. Holtby hasn’t been up all season so the defense isn’t as used to his habits as a team would like. That puts a heavy onus on the communication between the net minder and the defenders.

“I had Carey Price in Montreal. He loves to go behind the net and he likes to play the puck and it helps you, from my experience it is like a third defensemen. He goes and he plays the puck and it makes it easy on yourself and helps us for not facing too much to the boards and getting hit. First we have to talk to him and it is all about communication. The games he played he did a pretty good job so hopefully he’s going to continue to do that,” said Hamrlik on Holtby and the importance of communication with a stick handling adept goalie.

“I think the communication is always there, I think it is still hard because obviously when the D are coming back for the puck we see one thing and he’s looking up and he sees another thing. It’s tough to communicate perfectly every time, but we do our best. He helps us out, especially on just little plays where we can go behind the net and he can get out of the net and play it to us. We still have time to maybe get the back of the net so they can’t pressure us right off of the bat. That is huge, first off we don’t get run every time and we have time to make a play, make the right play, and break out of the zone,” added Carlson providing some interesting scenarios for where #70 can make a huge difference.

So when you sum it up, for Washington to play its’ best hockey of the season they are going to have to simplify their game, win the special teams battle, and get stops plus puck movement from their goalie. As Hamrlik told me, there is a battle going on for every inch of space in the post season. Boston is a very good team and will try and be physical with Washington. That doesn’t bother guys like Perreault, who says that he doesn’t mind going into the high traffic areas. If #85 is doing that, then one would hope that Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and others do that as well. Even Ovechkin should make a habit of stopping in front of the net more often because the closer you are to the net, the higher the probability of the shot going in.

The formula is there for Washington to upset Boston, who are the heavy favorites based on the numerous series’ previews I’ve seen, but the execution is what matters.

Will this year be different? We’ll find out soon enough.

Notes: The Caps recalled forward Mattias Sjogren from Sweden today and he will practice with the team during the postseason. He is not eligible to play for Hershey in the AHL playoffs…both injured goalies Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth tried skating on Tuesday. #30 had the better session, but it doesn’t look like either guy will be ready to start a game any time soon…Hamrlik has a lot of playoff history against Boston and remember the Canadiens won the first two games of the opening round series last season before losing in overtime in game seven to the B’s..I will have my final series preview and prediction up on Wednesday night.

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Rangers Lucky They Lost to Caps Today

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Rangers Lucky They Lost to Caps Today

Posted on 07 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

John Tortorella should be thanking his lucky stars that Alexander Ovechkin scored his 38th goal of the season just 32 seconds into the game to pave the way for a Washington 4-1 rout over his New York Rangers.

Why? Because the number one seeded Rags weren’t going to beat the Capitals in a seven game series in the opening round of the playoffs, which would have been the scenario had the Rangers knocked off the Caps today.

The Caps OWWWWNNNN the BlueShirts since New York has no match for Washington’s skilled players. Ovechkin (1 goal), Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) and Alexander Semin (1 assist) light up when they see the slow Rangers defense and Henrik Lundqvist often has the task of trying to be the difference. On Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, King Henrik had no chance as the Capitals swarmed him in the opening frame en route to a 3-0 lead. Braden Holtby stopped 35 shots but most of them were from the perimeter as #70 made a strong case to be the first round starting goalie against the Boston Bruins, especially with both Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun not at 100% healthwise.

For the Rangers, they luck out and get the Ottawas Senators, which is a much easier matchup for them despite what Keith Jones of the Philadelphia Flyers, I mean NBC, thinks.

The Caps last chance to win the Southeast Division title went out the window when the Carolina Hurricanes laid down by playing goalie Brian Boucher in Florida. Give credit to the Cats though, they deserved the division title since the Caps were so inconsistent throughout the season. The Panthers take the #3 seed and will face the New Jersey Devils.

For Washington, a mostly miserable regular season is finally over. It started with a 7-0 run, included inconsistent play, a coaching change, and some key injuries (Backstrom and Mike Green) during the majority of it, while finishing with a 5-2 stretch to qualify for the post season. The Caps get the very difficult task of facing the Boston Bruins in the first round and they will be heavy underdogs.

The Bruins are good and experienced while the Capitals underachieved in the regular season. Add in the fact that Washington will be playing the goalie that is 3rd on the depth chart and on paper, this looks like a mismatch. Most of the national and local media will predict it that way, but that takes pressure off of the Capitals.

Still, they do have internal pressure to win. This team was picked to go far in the postseason back in October and owner Ted Leonsis won’t be happy with a first round exit, even if it does come against the defending Stanley Cup Champions.

For the Caps to find a way to beat Boston, they need to continue to do the things they did right on Saturday on Broadway. They need to go to the net and get traffic on the opposing goalie. They need to use solid defense to generate transition offense, like Roman Hamrlik did setting up a three on two for the Backstrom goal that made it 4-0. They also need good goaltending, like Holtby provided tonight.

What they need to improve on are some very important things. First, they still have a tendency to try to make the perfect or fancy play and that leads to too many turnovers in all zones. Coach Dale Hunter has to get the players to clean that up. The simple play is the one that works best in playoffs, not the “thread the needle” type passes that are tried too often by this hockey club.

In addition, the power play was 1 for 3 in New York but does anyone feel confident in it? The Rangers best chances to score came when the Caps were a man up because of poor decision making. Dennis Wideman had a terrible night manning the point. Green wasn’t much better and he certainly didn’t have his legs when chasing down Rangers on shorthanded semi breakaways in this one. If the Caps want to get the power play going then look no farther than how they scored against Lundqvist. John Carlson got the puck in the middle of the ice at the blue line and fired it on net. He didn’t look to pass, he simply sent the biscuit flying towards the cage where it was deflected home by a New York player. Good things happen when you shoot and the more the guys on the power play start to figure it out the more goals they’ll get and the number of shorthanded odd man breaks and goals against (the Capitals allowed 10 of them this year) will go down. It is a simple formula.

So 82 games are in the books and for the record the team went 42-32-8 for 92 points. They were 3-1 against the Bruins this year as well. But none of that means anything now, but what does matter is the Capitals need to improve in some key areas if they want to have a chance of winning against Boston and get a shot at owning the Rangers again in the post season in round two.

The Caps did Tortorella and company a favor tonight, but the fiery Rangers coach will never admit it.

You’re welcome John and hope to see you in round two.

Notes: Hamrlik had two assists in 16:38 of ice time and I am saying that was his best game of the season. He looked confident and poised throughout the contest…Carlson was good too in 20:25 of ice time. That is two super games in a row for him and he deserves more power play time with his excellent shot…Laich centered the top line and won the key faceoff that got Washington rollling…Joel Ward returned and played solid on a 4th line with Mathieu Perreault and Keith Aucoin. Ward’s grinding style seems to be a good fit for the postseason and the Caps will need big things out of him to try to stop a potent Bruins club…the full playoff schedule will be announced Sunday at 1 pm on the NHL Network.

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Sloppy Caps Win in Shootout

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Sloppy Caps Win in Shootout

Posted on 01 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

With the out of town scoreboard being the Washington Capitals friend on both Friday and Saturday night, the Caps found themselves in a struggle with the Montreal Canadiens, the last place team in the Eastern Conference, in their own building. Dale Hunter’s crew put out a decent effort, but the Caps over passed and shot wide on their chances plus they had several sloppy stretches in Nicklas Backstrom’s return to the lineup for the first time in 40 games. Fortunately for Washington, Michal Neuvirth was very good in net (39 saves, 2-2 in shootout) and Matt Hendricks and Alex Semin made super moves in the gimmick as the Capitals escaped with two points.

It was a huge victory on paper as the Caps moved two points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres, who lost on Friday at home against Pittsburgh and then Saturday in Toronto, with just three games remaining. Because the Capitals hold the tiebreaker over the Sabres (regulation or overtime wins), Washington’s magic number, which is points gained by the Caps or points lost by Buffalo, sits at four. In addition, if the Florida Panthers lose in regulation to the Detroit Red Wings in Hockeytown on Sunday, then the Capitals control their own destiny with respect to the Southeast Division title. The Caps are in Tampa on Monday, come home to face the Panthers on Thursday, before closing out their regualar season at Madison Square Garden on Saturday against the Rangers.

Things are shaping up nicely for the Caps standings wise, but if they want to close the deal, and more importantly, advance in the post season, they have to clean their game up. Washington squandered too many opportunities in this one. Alexander Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson (3 giveaways) played with Backstrom in his return. #19 was very good but his linemates were woefully inconsistent and that prevented them from connecting. Brooks Laich, another guy this team needs going to win regularly, was also sloppy on this night (4 giveaways) and was yet another reason the Capitals couldn’t sustain anything after a very good first 16 minutes or so.

The Caps never sat back in this game, in fact, the two Montreal goals came in transition as Washington was trying to push the pace. Max Pacioretty blew down the left wing late in the first period and when Karl Alzner over committed to help out his defensive partner, Dennis Wideman, Erik Cole was all alone in front and scored. The Habs second goal came when Thomas Plekenac just abused Roman Hamrlik one on one and then fired a sweet shot upstairs to beat Neuvirth (39 saves).

In overtime, the Capitals struggled once again on four and four because they couldn’t keep up with Monreal’s speed. That was disappointing given that the Habs played the night before in New York and should have been the tired club. The Caps are fortunate their goalie was on his game on this night and Neuvirth certainly showed that he can be the guy the way he played on Saturday. Last year #30 was very instrumental in Washington winning the Eastern Conference in the regular season and with Tomas Vokoun’s creaky groin, Neuvy needs to step up again for the Caps to win the division/make the post season.

At the end of the night, despite the fancy play that led to too many turnovers, the Caps come out on top and they are in a nice position to make the post season after things looked troublesome following the blowout loss to Buffalo on Tuesday. There are still three games to go and Washington must play better if they want to close things out and avoid an early trip to the golf course. The Southeast Divison will be likely there for the taking after Sunday’s slate is complete, but the Caps will need to win all three remaining games to pull that off and they won’t get that done if they perform like they did against Montreal.

Notes: Overall shot attempts were 68-68 but the Habs did a better job of getting theirs on goal…Mathieu Perreault scored the first Caps goal off of a nice feed from Semin and Jay Beagle scored the second after a sweet pass from Hendricks…those four players had good games but #85 only had 10:05 of ice time…Washington won the faceoff battle 38-28 with Backstrom going 12-6…Mike Green had 24:24 of ice time to lead the Caps…both teams did not score on the power play. The Caps had five chances to the Habs four. Washington must start connecting with the man advantage if they want to do post season damage.

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